In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, as pundits, politicians, and citizens all pored over data dashboards detailing infection rates and deaths, Heidi Tworek asked: What is the historical rationale for how statistics came to become the authentic mode to represent disease? Bringing historical insight to a contemporary problem of science communication, Tworek explores the power and limit of statistics to drive public health interventions.
The viral spread of false, misleading, and inaccurate information has increasingly been seen as a threat to democracy globally, leading to dedicated focus from academics, pundits, and policymakers on the topic of mis- and disinformation and the impact of social media platforms on public discourse. In response, there has been a rising wave of organizations, tools, and apps based around fact-checking, media literacy, and the debunking of conspiracy theories. However, not only do technological and social efforts often fail to correct the deep-seated mechanisms of disinformation, polarization, and extremist belief, they seem in some cases to reaffirm and calcify the divisions they aim to erase.
Central to the study of mis- and disinformation are questions of how and under what circumstances—social, cultural, historical, and technical—information is deemed “truthful,” “factual,” or “authentic.” Focusing on these deeper questions recognizes “fake news” as a symptom, not the underlying cause of information disorder. What leads people to believe certain facts or, even knowing the facts to be misrepresented, believe in the institution or individual sharing them?
Born from a Media & Democracy workshop, this essay collection emphasizes that authenticity is always relational: It is determined by someone, about someone. Shifting beyond issues of objective fact, it looks instead at questions of authority, performance, and mechanism: Who decides what is authentic? Who is allowed to be authentic? Who is believable, and how do questions of believability intersect with questions of race, gender, and class? How is authenticity different online vs. offline? Who benefits from authentication? Who shoulders the burden of proof? This essay series explores how a stronger understanding of authenticity and realigning our focus beyond disinformation might lead to more robust interventions in an increasingly fractured and polarized political landscape.
This series has been curated by Jason Rhody, program codirector of Media & Democracy; Mike Miller, program codirector of Media & Democracy and program codirector of Just Tech; and Penelope Weber, projects coordinator for Media & Democracy and Digital Culture programs.
In the opening essay for the “Beyond Disinformation” series, Wendy HK Chun asks whether authenticity may provide a more useful lens for investigating contemporary social problems that are often treated uniformly as problems of mis- and disinformation.